At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like he’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she’d been released at last from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,
the way it gathers and swells, sucking
each rock under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching —
passengers waiting for the delayed flight
to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,
the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling
sunglasses. We couldn’t look away. We could
taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.
But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,
as your mother must have looked at you, no matter
what happened after — if she beat you or left you or
you’re lonely now — you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you
as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
all of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,
her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,
little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up.
We try so hard. Really we do. But Murphy’s Law usually prevails.
RELAX by Ellen Bass
Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat —
the one you never really liked — will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up — drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice — one white, one black — scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
How to reach for that strawberry, and keep the tiger of dread and misfortune at bay?
As Gilda Radner used to say, “There’s always something.” We fret, worry, stress — and what we dreaded so much doesn’t come to pass — something else happens instead. Something we didn’t anticipate, couldn’t possibly prepare for, something totally out of our control. You know, the inevitable, the unavoidable. We are misfortune’s fool.
The Buddhist story Bass cites offers some interesting food for thought. Does the tiger who chased the woman off the cliff represent the past, while the tiger lurking below, the future? Do the black and white mice (yin/yang?) symbolize time? Caught in the middle, knowing she’s going to die, the woman ceases to dwell on the past or worry about her fate. She simply seizes the only moment she has, the present — and it’s sweeter beyond belief.
Learning to relax, living in the moment, and trying to be a lot more ZEN about life in general is an ongoing challenge for most of us. What a good reminder to embrace the gifts that are before us and express gratitude, especially when things are difficult.
And things in this country ARE difficult. What place does poetry have in enabling us to cope?
In a 2014 NYT Artsbeat interview, Bass said:
Poetry is always grappling with the question: how do we go on? And one way is to find beauty — and humor — in the humblest, most unexpected places. And to praise this gorgeous, tender, terrifying life that is ours for just a second or two.
We’re all dangling from that vine. The strawberries are there for the taking.
Philadelphia-born Ellen Bass co-edited (with Florence Howe) the first major anthology of women’s poetry: No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (1973). Her recent collections include The Human Line (2007), Like a Beggar (2014), and Mules of Love (2002), a Lambda Literary Award-winner. An advocate for women survivors of child sexual abuse, Bass dedicated years of service to the cause and became a pioneer in the field of supporting the healing process through words, starting with the book (coedited with Louise Thornton) I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1983). This was followed by The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1988), coauthored with Laura Davis, and translated into twelve languages. Ellen is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and currently teaches in the low residency MFA program at Pacific University. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA, where she has taught writing and poetry workshops since 1974.
The shockingly clever but not so shockingly talented and beautiful Karen Edmisten is hosting the Roundup this week. Be sure to sashay on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere. Have a relaxing weekend! 🙂